Dec 4, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Lorea Zabaleta | Illustration by Bibi Powers

To Conrad Anker, a world-renowned mountaineer and climber living in Bozeman, Mont., being vocal on his various platforms about social and political issues is all about finding his voice and speaking it authentically.

As for the why, Anker believes that not only are there issues that he and other mountaineers are specifically aware of and impacted by, but that to see injustice and inequality in their own communities and elsewhere and not speak out would be irresponsible.

“To me, that’s the effect of climate change, because we see it firsthand being in the mountains and living in a mountain state,” he explained. “And we see how that happens … Then [there’s] also the intersectionality with social justice issues.”

Anker, with his substantial social media following, has become increasingly outspoken in the age of Trump and social media. Being a child of the 1960s and, as such, of the American Civil Rights Movement, Anker has always felt that the U.S. should live up to its reputation as a global leader by practicing its ideals of equality domestically. A lifelong voter, Anker, catalyzed by the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s actions, recently took his activism a step further. He now makes regular use of his social media platform to speak out against injustices and inadequacies he feels are present in the U.S.

Additionally, Anker understands that alpinism and mountaineering have long been intertwined with the political sphere and as such there is a precedent for his actions. From the 1980 Basque ascent of Everest to the Cold War Era espionage on Nanda Devi, one can hardly call it an activity wholly removed from politics.

Some alpinists, like Reinhold Messner and Mark Udall, are directly involved in politics. Messner, an Italian, is a renowned alpinist who not only soloed Mount Everest without oxygen but went to summit all of the 8,000-meter peaks without it as well. Udall is from the U.S. and summited Kanchunga, the third highest peak in the world, and performed several other notable feats in alpinism. Both of these men went on to serve as politicians, Messner in the European parliament for five terms as a member of the Italian Green Party, Verdi, and Udall as a Democratic Congressman and later a Senator for Colorado.

However, Anker is skeptical as to whether there should be an active effort for more climbers to become politicians. On one hand, the sheer perseverance, cooperation, and humility needed to survive and succeed in the high mountains are certainly good traits for representatives. On the other, the brutality and the sway of money and corporations within politics could make it a difficult environment for an idealist alpinist seeking to create change.

Anker’s more recent and visible involvement after years of subtle actions such as voting and letters to the editor is due in part to social media and in part to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

While maintaining a balance of content on his pages, Anker considers his political views part of the package, especially considering the injustices embedded within the U.S. since its inception. “I’m gonna do what I can to speak out about things that are meaningful to me rather than just sort of letting it go by,” he said.  

Despite negative reactions or comments Anker has received from some conservative climbers throughout the years, the sport and its participants generally possess a progressive skew due to the inherently cooperative nature of the activity, he said.

Asked whether the backlash he received was more likely due to specific political opinions or to Anker being political at all, Anker replied that it seemed to be a bit of both. The more aggressive comments tend to not arrive in person, he said, but rather via a comment section. Some will say they followed him for the mountains and not his political views, letting him know that they do not respect his political views and will therefore unfollow him. To this he says, “Well, okay. I mean, I didn’t ask you to follow me in the first place.”

This interconnection between the socio-political and the alpine goes beyond U.S. politics and advocacy, as there are many nations which contain famous and beautiful mountains alongside internal strife or poverty.

“It’s usually climbers that are the first ones that come back into these areas that have been under civil strife,” Anker said. “So they’re the first to come back into it and they’re also sort of in a way … encouraging recreation and tourism in a peaceful manner, which is, at the fundamental, a great way to remove the income inequality that our planet is straddled with.”

While mountains may be apolitical, that neutrality does not extend to those who scale them, nor the countries within which they exist. Therefore, as Anker put it, “we cannot let matters of global importance slip by because we are lazy or selfish.”

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